Early Season Trolling Tactics

By Dale Helgeson - May 1, 2004
The open water season is upon us here in Wisconsin. As you head out to your favorite lake you try to decide what will be the best way to find fish. Many people go to their favorite spots that have produced over the years but many people are going to try new waters. One of my favorite techniques for finding fish all year round is trolling. Trolling is a great search technique to find fish faster than casting or anchoring. It allows you to effectively cover large amounts of water and several areas within the water column.

Early in the year some lakes the fish are just finishing up spawning. In this situation trolling may not be the most effective way to catch fish but it will help you find them. But many of the larger species such as the walleye, northern pike, and musky are done spawning by the opening weekend. Trolling is a very effective way to find these fish which are actively feeding.

Let's face it we want to catch active fish. They are the easiest to catch. Where to start though? Before you even head out to the water get a good lake map. There are several on the market but one new one shows the contours really well is mapping Specialists 3-D maps. Look over the map for key areas. Look for points, sharp break lines, weed lines, sunken islands, water inlets, river channels, and different transition areas between gravel bottom and mud or sand. Early in the year I prefer northwest corners as the will warm up the fastest especially if they have a dark bottom. Look through all these areas and take notes as to where they are in relationship to each other and pick out the spots that have more than one characteristic if possible. Say a point that has a transition from sand to rock bottom with a weed line near shore.

Once you map out the areas that you want to try you have to decide which baits to use. Early in the season I prefer to use crank baits. I prefer a lure like Storm's Junior Thundersticks, Matzuo's Prism Shad, and Rapala's Original or Shallow Shad Rap. I will use snap weights early in the year to get my baits down to the depths that I want.

Later in the summer I will switch to the Dave's Lures Winning Streak and Nitro Shiner and Rapala's Shad Raps especially the Jointed Shad Raps. I try to stick to natural colors this time of year perch, shad, but will mix in a Firetiger or purple trout depending on situations and especially water clarity. Don't be afraid to try different colors and let the fish tell you what they want.

The speed of your troll will depend on the fish's mood. Let them dictate the speed. Start out slow and as you catch fish increase the speed to the fastest speed that you can maintain getting bit. The faster you go the more water you will cover. But if they stop biting slow back down. Make sure to take notes at the depths, speed, lure size, and lure color that you were bit on. Always try to duplicate what works with your other lines to form a pattern.

As the season progresses I will run a lot of live bait rigs. Primarily crawler harnesses. I use

" Early in the year I prefer northwest corners as the will warm up the fastest especially if they have a dark bottom."
the crawler harnesses when I want to work tight to structure like sharp points or underwater ledges. This is a much slower presentation though, usually around .5-1 MPH. Try to stay with a particular depth that fish are holding at. If the fish are in shallow water you may have to use planer boards. The best boards that I have found to use are; Off Shore's and Church Tackle's boards. The clips on these boards work well and you can get tattle flags for either one now.

The most important thing with structure trolling is boat control. You must maintain you baits in the strike zone at the desired depth. If you are working the edge of a drop-off that starts at 16 feet of water you will want to maintain that depth and still remain on the edge of the drop.

If trolling heavy cover such as submerged tree or stumps you may have to modify your crank baits. If you don't, you will have to plan on losing several of them. I take off the treble hooks and replace the rear treble with a tandem hook that I can thread through the crank bait eye. This will allow you to prevent many snags while still providing a good hookup ratio. I also prefer to use my Shakespeare trolling rods with 30 pound PowerPro so if I do get snagged I can straighten some of the hooks out. Hooks are a lot cheaper than crank baits.

Another valuable piece of equipment that you will want to have to save you arms is rod holders. I prefer the RAM rod holders for their ease of use and durability.

One very important tool is the Trolling Bible. It is a reference for setting your baits back with controlling the depth. It's a book that lists many of the crank baits available with their dive curves so you can pick the right baits for the depth desired.

If you haven't trolled before give it a try. It is a very effective way to catch fish and you can do it with your existing equipment with even one rod but if the more rods you use the more water you will cover.

Best of luck and don't forget to take a kid fishing.

Author Dale Helgeson
Dale Helgeson
Dale Helgeson is owner and operator of The Outdoor Experience Guide Service focusing on lakes in southeastern Wisconsin. Dale is a professional fisherman fishings the MWC walleye fishing circuits as well as writing articles for Lake-Link and Southeast Wisconsin Outdoor Guide among others. Dale is sponsored by these fine sponsors: Geneva Cabinet Company, Action Marine, DR Plastics, Maui Jim Sunglasses, Black Mountain Socks, RAM Mounts, Frabill, Pflueger Rods and Reels, Dave’s Kaboom Lures, Lake-Link.com, Kick’n Walleye Scents, Minn Kota, Strikemaster Augers, Mapping Specialists, Vexilar, Guest Pro Chargers, PowerPro Lines, KINeSYS Sunscreen, NPAA 872. His Pro Staffs include: Daiichi Hooks, XTools, FinTech Tackle Company, Off Shore Tackle, Navionics, Jammin Jigs/Bad Dog Lures